Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Droitwich, Worcestershire

One more from Mr Pippet

I wanted to show you one more mosaic from the church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria, Droitwich, the building that featured in the previous post. This image of St Philip shows the Apostle carrying bread, having been present at the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes (the “feeding of the five thousand”). According to St John's Gospel, Philip remarked of Jesus’ five thousand followers that, “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.” The mosaic is also remarkable for the surrounding leaves and fruit, plus the charming population of birds with which the designer, Gabriel Pippet, enlivened the areas around the saint’s portrait.

Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Droitwich, Worcestershire

Peacock and Pippet

I hope this blog has brought some interest and pleasure to my readers this year and that some at least of the pleasure has come from unexpected sources. I like to think that quite a lot of what I bring you is out-of-the-way stuff, buildings that are little known outside their immediate neighbourhood and passed over by the standard architectural histories. My subjects interest me for all sorts of reasons but the ones I like best are notable aesthetically while also throwing some light on the past – on social, industrial, or commercial history.

So this year we’ve had, among other things, village lockups, in which quirky architectural form embodies past notions of crime and punishment; factories, in which low-cost, utilitarian architecture survives (sometimes by the skin of its teeth) to tell the stories of past industries; and shop fronts, in which former fashions in display reveal something about the ways in which retailers liked to catch the attention of customers. All very revealing and often surprising too.

Christmas, though, is a time when surprises come in traditional packaging. This fact came into my mind when I was looking at a building that combines tradition with surprise: a 20th-century Byzantine-style church…in Droitwich. The Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria, designed by Barry Peacock, is based on the form of early Christian basilicas. The long nave, with its rows of seven arches, its small apse housing the high altar, its carved capitals, and, above all, its mosaic decoration, shows the influence of the great early churches of Constantinople and, especially, Ravenna.

Most of the mosaics were designed by Gabriel Pippet and executed by mosaicist Maurice Josey. Their subjects are various – one group tells the story of St Richard de Wyche, Droitwich’s saint; another depicts scenes from the life of the Virgin, including the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Flight into Egypt. There are also portraits of saints and fathers of the Church – St Catherine’s mosaic in the apse of her little chapel is especially good. The details in these mosaics are beautiful. Interweaving plants and little groups of birds fill the gaps between the figures and narrative panels. Gold tesserae glitter. Even on a dull day in Droitwich, this lovely work of the 1920s catches the light like the mosaics of Ravenna in the Italian sunshine.

Season's Greetings to all my readers.

St Catherine, Church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria, Droitwich

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Market Harborough, Leicestershire

Swans, up

I know I’ve gone on about swans on this blog before. About their seductive combination of strength and softness, their place in English tradition (swan-upping), their role in poetry and mythology, their presence near buildings such as the Archbishop’s Palace at Wells, even the memorable appearance of these usually quiet creatures in English music. Swans get me going, and there it is.

I was reminded of all this a while back when passing one of my favourite inn signs, which protrudes from the front of the Three Swans in the middle of Market Harborough. History books say that the first mention of the inn – then simply The Swan – dates from 1517. By the 18th century it was well established as a coaching inn, with stables at the back servicing regular coaches to London.

The central portion of the sign is probably the oldest – some sources guess 17th, others 18th century, when the inn was still The Swan. The collection of curlicues shows off not just the central sign but also the work of some local blacksmith. He was fortunate indeed to get the chance to display his work in such a prominent place, and took full advantage of the chance for a free advertisement. For who would not want a garden gate, or some andirons, or a trivet made by this craftsman?

At some later date, perhaps in the later-18th century, perhaps in the early 19th when the building was remodelled, the hostelry added a further two swans to its name and its sign. The smith’s successor came along and attached them in place, and, with their sinuous necks and the equally curvaceous ironwork that they bookend, they make distinctive silhouettes against the sky. No doubt I’m not the only one to crane my neck in homage.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Isle Abbots, Somerset

Rubble rouser

Back at the beginning of the year I did a post about the church at Isle Abbots, which has one of the graceful late-medieval Gothic towers for which Somerset’s parish churches are justly famous. Around the side of the church I was fascinated to find a few masonry fragments that had been removed from the building at some stage, probably during a restoration. One of them is the part of a pinnacle shown in my photograph, and what’s particularly interesting about it is that it has a piece of metal sticking out of the top. This is a rod, probably made of lead, that was used to help hold this piece and another, now vanished, stone together.

Medieval masons used lead in their joints quite often, especially when building intricate, willowy structures such as window tracery, narrow shafts (mini-columns), and pinnacles. They did this by drilling vertical holes through the pieces of stone and lining them up. Then they called in the plumber – the man who worked with lead – and he undertook the painstaking task of pouring the molten lead in from the top. When the lead set, the pinnacle had a solid armature, adding greatly to its strength.

Working with molten lead in this way must have been a perilous business, especially if you were at the top of a 200-foot tower at the time. But it seems to have been a common occurrence in the Middle Ages, and helped architectural details such as this pinnacle survive from the 15th to the 20th or 21st century. Now some of these parts of the building have been renewed, it’s good to find some bits of the originals near ground level, so that one can look at them closely. Another medieval pinnacle seems to have found a new role in the garden of a nearby cottage.

Displaced pinnacle, Isle Abbots, Somerset

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Piccadilly, London

Space invader

An alien invader has appeared in the courtyard of the Royal Academy. It’s a scale model of one of the great unbuilt projects of Russian communism, the Monument to the Third International, designed in 1919–20 by Vladimir Tatlin and commonly known as Tatlin’s tower. The original was intended to be 400 m high and although known as a monument it was intended to house various functions of the Third International, also known as Comintern, the organization set up in 1919 to fight for communism in Russia and beyond. Inside the tower’s double spiral of twisted metal were to be four structures of steel and glass, each in effect a separate building. These inner structures – in the model they are made of wire – were designed to accommodate separate parts of Comintern. Each was to be a perfect form (a cube, a pyramid, a cylinder, and a hemisphere) and the three lower ones were meant to rotate at different speeds.

Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that this monster monument was never built. The constructional challenges were immense and the amount of steel required was enormous. But not for the first or last time, an unbuilt structure started balls rolling. The idea of its intricate steel network inspired architects and engineers, and the tower (and its enigmatic designer) has enjoyed a long afterlife in books about architecture, histories of the Soviet Union, and even fiction. Now architects Dixon Jones have built this replica to accompany the Royal Academy’s exhibition Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture, 1915-–1935, which is on at the RA until 22 January. The tower looks rather odd against the Palladian-Victorian background of Burlington House. As I was trying to photograph it, I longed for a neutral background. But the contrast between the constructivist steelwork of Tatlin’s tower and the stonework behind is, I suppose, part of the point. It was always meant to stick out and in its new incarnation in Piccadilly it still does.

There are details of the exhibition here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Devizes, Wiltshire

Piper and after

One of my favourite blogs is Adventures in the Print Trade, in which Neil Philip, proprietor of the online gallery Idbury Prints, shares some of his discoveries and enthusiasms. Neil recently posted about some images of 1940s Devizes by John Piper and I was particularly pleased to see these prints because I’d already read Piper’s short essay about the town reprinted in his book Buildings and Prospects (the dust jacket of which is illustrated with versions of some of the Devizes images). In the essay, Piper praises the town’s ‘good minor architecture, magnificent museum (contents not building), brewery and tobacco factory (sensible, small-scale manufactures for such a town), branch-line railway, good inns and bars, hotels… fair churches and chapels, canal of handsome appearance, sensible plan, bracing air, good-looking inhabitants, cinemas (old-fashioned and super, the super not ostentatious).’ If the place has lost some of these amenities since Piper wrote in 1944, it retains enough of them, from inns to churches, to make it recognisably the same town.

Piper’s approach in his illustrations is similar to the way he worked on prints of towns such as Penzance for the Architectural Review. He shows us groups of buildings, throwing light on how they relate to one another along a street, and conjuring up in the process a powerful sense of place. I’ve chosen a couple of examples from Neil’s collection to show what I mean. The simple outlines, blocks of colour, and rapidly sketched details give us the essential information – the shapes of the buildings, their materials, key details such as windows and doors. We quickly grasp the character of the place – a mix of Georgian and Victorian buildings in stone, brick, and colourwash, with a minimum of modern modification.

The prints also appeal to me because they bring out an essential difference between the way an artist like Piper worked and the way I work when I point my camera at the same place. Piper could include or exclude anything or anyone he liked from his sketchbook. My camera is not so selective. So when I last went to this town on a busy Saturday morning (and I was pleased to see that the place was busy and the shops well used), I tended not to take general views like Piper’s which would have been full of cars and shoppers, but to concentrate on individual buildings when there happened to be fewer passers-by in front of them.

So I went, for example, for the Old Town Hall (also known as the Cheese Hall), visible in Piper’s print down a street of the Market Place itself. This George II building (see my photograph above) shouldn’t work really – the old open arches of the ground floor have been glazed to make offices for a bank. And even in its original state the building was a cobble: an even number of arches (and, therefore, a column in the middle of the façade) is a no-no in Classical architecture. But from chunky ground floor to sculpted pediment it holds together. And look how Piper, in the upper print at the top of this post, has caught the context – the distant tower of the church to the right, the elaborate shop (a former Boots) with domed white tower to the left, and the framing buildings on either side.

Likewise with Piper’s view of the side of the Market Place containing the Black Swan, a coaching inn dating from the 1730s. His sketchy style doesn’t show as many details as a photograph might, but he’s got the gist of it. And the setting – including the streamlined 1930s Co-op to the right, now replaced, as you can see in my photograph, with a blander building, no doubt designed to “fit in” to the townscape, but sadly losing the struggle.

There’s so much more in Piper’s Devizes prints, and looking at them again makes me want to revisit the town and see what other details noted by the artist are still there. These small works show that Piper, whether he was producing a very worked-up, consciously grand, print or painting of a big country house, or these more modest images of a market town, could pack in telling details – and make us look, and look again with fresh eyes.

Monday, December 5, 2011


Simple gift

A stomach bug laid me low on Sunday, putting me off my stride and kicking my usual weekend post off the field of play. Here’s a brief post as compensation: one of my favourite pieces of monumental sculpture.

This monument is to Charlotte Elizabeth Digby, who died in 1820. She was wife of William Digby, who was a prebendary of Worcester Cathedral, which is how she comes to be here. Her monument was created by Francis Chantrey, who completed it in 1825. Chantrey, a prolific sculptor, was famous for his monuments to children. Some of the simplicity of his carvings of children is perhaps also seen in this reminder that after centuries of sleeping figures, putti, urns, berobed belledames, and theratrical gestures, a monument could show simply this: a young woman reclining on a couch, her hands together but not demonstrably prayerful, her head raised and calm, not downcast. Idealized? Yes. Classical? Certainly. But she belongs to the real world too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bisley, Gloucestershire

Under lock and key (2)

Here’s another example of a local lock-up designed to be easy on the eye, but in a different style from the round, domed one at Shrewton in the previous post. The ogee-shaped gable, its double curves rising to a ball finial in the centre, is a baroque touch that’s quite surprising on what is basically a small prison. The gable conceals a roof covered in Cotswold stone “slates”, just visible in the picture. Beneath this roof are two separate cells with barred doors and above the doors are semi-circular openings like little barred fanlights. Inside, the cells have stone-vaulted ceilings, to prevent inmates from dismantling the roof and escaping.

For all the bars, the symmetrical front, with its curvaceous gable and finial, make this lock-up look rather like a picturesque garden building – a rather different visual approach from the usual “castle turret” appearance of many village lock-ups. The double accommodation, in contrast to the usual single cell, sets this building apart too. Bisley is quite a large village, but I don’t know if it was a particularly lawless place in 1824, when this little structure was built. For whatever reason, its builders felt that two cells were better than one.